Since it opened to professionals in 1996, the men's road race at the Olympic Games has been notoriously difficult to predict. That year in Atlanta, for instance, there were faint rumblings beforehand that it was a course for sprinters – Mario Cipollini featured for Italy, after all – but in the end, a three-up sprint between hilly Classics specialists ensued, with Pascal Richard claiming gold.
At first glance, Paolo Bettini's victory in Athens in 2004 suggests a race that followed the formbook rigorously, but nobody could have anticipated that the best one-day rider of the period would be joined all the way to the line by the hitherto unheralded Sergio Paulinho, then plying his trade with lowly Portuguese squad LA Aluminios-Pecol-Bombarral.
And, lest we forget, the build-up to London four years ago was dominated by paeans to the strength of the British squad assembled around Mark Cavendish, yet the day ended not with the widely predicted bunch sprint, but with Alexandre Vinokourov's upset win ahead of the no less surprising Rigoberto Uran.
The Rio de Janeiro course is, in statistical terms at least, the toughest of the past twenty years and, in theory, only a very elite cadre of riders should be in the shake-up for the medals on Saturday afternoon, yet the list of contenders stretches far beyond the ten riders selected below.
The dynamics of the Olympic road race are different to just about any other event at this level, including the World Championships. The smaller teams obviously make it more difficult to control, while there is a subtle difference, too, in the spoils on offer. An Olympic bronze medal is a rather weightier prize than the equivalent at the Worlds or a podium spot in a Classic. In short, the race for third can be as keenly contested as the battle for gold.
Alejandro Valverde (Spain)
No rider has found more ways to lose the World Championships road race than Alejandro Valverde. Six times a medallist but never a rainbow jersey winner, the man who wins from February through to October has somehow contrived to fall short of landing victory in the colours of the Spanish national team, but he is nonetheless a logical favourite for the gold medal in Rio.
Even at 36 years of age, Valverde remains largely the same force he was before his belated 2010 ban as a result of Operacion Puerto. This season alone, he has won Flèche Wallonne and placed third overall at the Giro d'Italia, before helping himself to 6th overall at the Tour de France, where his primary task was to help Nairo Quintana.
Faster than anybody who can out-climb him and a better climber than anyone who can out-sprint him, the tough Rio course seems perfectly tailored to Valverde's skillset, but then the same could have been said of several Worlds circuits over the years. Decision-making in the final lap and dovetailing with his Spanish teammates' efforts has been a repeated issue for Valverde, most notably when he inexplicably allowed Rui Costa to bridge across to teammate Joaquim Rodriguez and win the Florence Worlds.
Dan Martin (Ireland)
A rider capable of winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Lombardy surely ought to thrive on the Rio course, and, with the reduced team sizes at the Olympics, Dan Martin will not be penalised by the fact that he has just one Irish teammate – his cousin Nicolas Roche – for company on Saturday.
Martin has enjoyed a solid debut season with Etixx-QuickStep and arrives in Brazil buoyed by his first top ten finish at the Tour de France, where he sparkled in the Pyrenees. Although he betrayed signs of fatigue in the final week, the two-week gap between the end of the Tour and the Olympic road race offers the perfect compromise between recovering from his efforts in France and harnessing the form he built up during the race.
It's hardly a coincidence that Martin's two best Tour of Lombardy showings – his 2014 victory and his second place in 2011 – came on the back of his two best Grand Tour performances to that point, namely his 7th place in the 2014 Vuelta a España and his 13th place in 2011. On each occasion, Martin emerged from Spain with what amounted to the form of his life. In 2014, incidentally, a late crash hindered him at the Ponferrada Worlds. If fortune is kinder here, anything is possible.
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy)
For many, the Olympic Games are almost an afterthought following the Tour de France. For Vincenzo Nibali, the road race in Rio is the main event of his summer, and – Giro d'Italia victory notwithstanding – perhaps even his entire season. Much like Mark Cavendish in London four years ago, Nibali has made a 'project' of Rio. Indeed, and again like Cavendish, Nibali has won just about everything he can possibly win in cycling – barring an Olympic medal.
Nibali removed himself from the general classification battle early at the Tour and rode in support of Fabio Aru and in preparation for Rio, though, the Andorra stage apart, it could be argued that the Sicilian very obviously prioritised the latter. A sartorius muscle injury caused him some discomfort in France, but he was a regular in the early break of the day in weeks two and three, and in the shake-up for stage victory on three occasions. Though he was still shy of his best in finishing third at Morzine, he showed signs of improvement as the race progressed.
Though Aru and Diego Rosa join him in the squadra azzurra, Nibali is the only plausible winner at Davide Cassani's disposal. Indeed, such has been the dearth of one-day talent in Italy that Nibali has regularly been a team leader for the national team in races far less suited to his talents than this. “This time it suits climbers,” said Nibali, who will be spurred on, too, by memories of his fourth place finish on home roads in Florence in 2013.
Wout Poels (Netherlands)
In truth, all four of the Dutchmen in the field could be categorised as riders to watch. Bauke Mollema claimed victory at Clasica San Sebastian last weekend, Steven Kruijswijk moved to a new level at the Giro d'Italia and Tom Dumoulin was one of the Tour's outstanding performers, even if he arrives in Brazil hampered by broken wrist and with designs on the time trial.
Wout Poels, however, just about gets the nod as the Dutch danger man by dint of his remarkable body of work in support of Chris Froome at the Tour and his victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this spring. "If he's won Liège, he can win the Olympics," Sky manager Dave Brailsford said of Poels during the third week of the Tour.
The problem for Poels is that he is far from the most explosive rider in the field, and will likely need to come to the finish alone if he is to claim gold. He did, of course, emerge victorious in a four-up sprint at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but that came atop the Côte de Ans at the end of a race where the snow and freezing temperatures made the finale a matter of power rather than speed. With a team full of diesels, the Dutch will surely look to make Saturday's race tough early on in a bid to eliminate the fast men.
Chris Froome (Great Britain)
Froome has never won a one-day race in his time at Sky and has never made any impact in the World Championships road race, but the Olympic Games seem to exist in a vacuum and, on form alone, the Tour winner is clearly the man of the moment.
The three ascents of the Vista Chinesa climb (8 kilometres at 5.7%) in the finale certainly ought to suit a man of Froome's talents, while his cameos on the descent of the Peyresourde and the run-in to Montpellier during the Tour suggest that the Sky man has added a dash of invention and nous to his usual physical strength.
With just four teammates at his disposal, Froome will not be able to deploy his Great Britain team to control matters in the manner of Sky, but he has some very useful foils indeed in the shape of Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates and Steve Cummings. After trying – and failing – to close the race down in London four years ago, the British squad ought to be one of the prime movers in looking to break it up this time around.
Julian Alaphilippe (France)
Buoyed by his defiant second place finish at the Tour, Romain Bardet is the obvious bearer of French hopes at the Olympic Games and seems certain to be a pugnacious presence on the Vista Chinesa climb (and descent), but with a flat 12-kilometre run-in to the finish, a decent turn of speed might yet prove to be a pre-requisite for the gold medallist.
In that light, and even though he would doubtless prefer an uphill finishing straight, Julian Alaphilippe may just be France's best bet of a medal in Rio. The Etixx-QuickStep man certainly has the distance in his legs – he placed second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège a year ago – and he arrives in Brazil on the back of an all-action display at the Tour that didn't land him a stage win but earned him plenty of admirers in his home country.
The absence of the ill Thibaut Pinot means that France doesn't quite have the dream team envisaged back in January, but coach Bernard Bourreau still has a squad at his disposal well capable of mixing it with Spain, Britain et al. Even when French cycling was in its pomp, the national team was, curiously, rarely the sum of its parts, but Alaphilippe, Bardet, Warren Barguil and Alexis Vuillermoz have the capacity to compete – and more – in Rio.
Rigoberto Uran (Colombia)
Since the Olympic road race was opened to professionals in Atlanta in 1996, 11 out of 15 medallists have participated in the Grand Tour that immediately preceded it (the Tour de France on each occasion bar 2000, when the Sydney Olympics took place after the Vuelta a España), but Uran is one of the exceptions to the rule.
Uran claimed a surprise silver medal in 2012 after riding to 7th overall at the Giro d'Italia and then sitting out the Tour. His road to London instead went via the Tour de Pologne, and the Colombian remained under the radar right up to the final 10 kilometres, when he clipped off the front in the decisive two-man break with Alexander Vinokourov.
Four years on, Uran has seen fit to repeat the same formula – he even placed 7th at the Giro again – to build up to the first South American Olympic Games, but while the course undoubtedly suits him better than four years ago, he has failed to sparkle thus far in his tenure at Cannondale. Indeed, there are more obviously on-form riders in a Colombian team that is one of the strongest in the race on paper. Sergio Henao and Jarlinson Pantano shone at the Tour, and Esteban Chaves, second at the Giro, also features, but Uran's seniority and charisma make him the de facto leader.
Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium)
On paper, the Rio course is better suited to Tour de Pologne winner Tim Wellens or even Philippe Gilbert, but Greg Van Avermaet's Tour de France form suggests that he is the man with the best chance of landing Belgium's first Olympic road title since André Noyelle claimed gold in Helsinki in 1952.
Van Avermaet finally began to shake off his longstanding reputation as the nearly man of Belgian cycling with a fine spring campaign that saw him take out Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico, though his Classics campaign was cut short prematurely by a heavy crash at the Tour of Flanders. Undeterred, Van Avermaet rebounded to solo to stage victory at Le Lioran during the Tour and enjoy a stint in the maillot jaune.
At first glance, the Rio course seems too demanding for a rider of Van Avermaet's characteristics, but that overlooks his past dalliance with the Ardennes Classics – he was 7th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011 – while he underscored his current climbing form at the Tour by defending yellow through the first day in the Pyrenees. In theory, Van Avermaet really should be shaken loose on the Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuit, but if the climbers race conservatively, he is among the riders who could be thrust into contention.
Rui Costa (Portugal)
Regardless of the form book, the Olympic Games road race is long (256 kilometres) and hard (over 4,000 metres of total climbing), so it seems safe to assume that Rui Costa will be in the mix come the sixth hour of racing on the final Canoas/Vista Chinesa circuit.
On the face of it, Rui Costa has had a quiet twelve months or so, but scan the results of long, hilly races – Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Amstel Gold Race, the Worlds – and the Lampre-Merida man is inevitably there or thereabouts. His staying power, nous and canny ability to conserve energy means that he is a threat in any one-day race over 200 kilometres, such as when he ghosted to third at this year's Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Rui Costa laboured to little effect at the Tour, but he upset the prognostics to win the Worlds in Florence in 2013 – the only such edition even broadly similar to these Olympics – and he has the potential to match or better Sergio Paulinho's surprise silver medal of 2004.
Richie Porte (Australia)
There are other, more obvious contenders for an event such as this, like Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain), Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) or Michael Albasini (Switzerland), but Richie Porte's Tour showing marks him out as a dark horse for Rio, particularly given the nature of the parcours. “The guys who are up there in the Tour are probably the guys who are going to be animating the road race," Porte said as the Tour drew to a close. "And I'm out-climbing most of those guys. It's a climber's course.”
Like Froome, Porte has never landed a one-day race as a professional, but a similar pedigree hardly hindered Jan Ullrich and Andreas Klöden in Sydney. The time trial might be a more realistic target for the Tasmanian, but just anything is possible in the Olympic road race, where no team will have sufficient numbers to dictate affairs, and where the bronze medal is a prize worth winning rather than a mere consolation.
Australia lost Simon Gerrans when he sustained a broken collarbone at the Tour, but in truth, that ought not to hinder Porte unduly. He will be the outright leader and able to rely on the support of Simon Clarke and BMC teammate Rohan Dennis, who will already have one eye on the time trial to follow.
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